There are as many plots in role playing as there are in genre fiction. They all boil down to “man in conflict,” but there are many different flavors of “man” and an equally high number of flavors of “conflict.” If I were to attempt to describe every nuanced type of story available to role players, I’d have a book that would receive reviews along the lines of, “I can’t believe J.T. didn’t think of X, Y, and Z!”
Given the plethora of options, I’m going to merge some and boil things down to the most common types of stories found within role playing. If you think I’ve left something out of the list that’s as important as (or more important than) the ones I’ve listed here, please drop a comment below!
The game master is typically the one in charge of the story type. They come up with the campaign ideas, arcs, major events, and challenges that comprise the story line. However, it’s immensely fun (for me at least) to sit down at the table and improv the story with the players. This is the type of game in which the players control the arc of the story through their own agency rather than the game master dictating the style of play. Anything can, and usually does, happen with this story type. It’s the unexpected of these types of stories that I love about them. Even the players will surprise one another with their actions!
This style of game typically falls into the “whodunit” style of story, but with the fantastic sciences or magics involved, it can easily be a “whatdunit” as well. There’s always something mysterious, mystical, powerful, or just plain weird going on, and the PCs have to band together and use every skill/ability/power they have to find the root of the mystery. Sometimes, this game can evolve into one of the other types of stories once the mystery is solved. It just depends on what the game master has in mind for the second act.
Monster of the Week
These story types are generally very brief, but are quite a bit of fun. Some strange critter threatens the PCs or something the PCs hold dear, and the group has to work together to put a stop to the monster. The “monster” doesn’t have to be something mythological, horrific, alien, or magical. A fellow person (or NPC in game parlance) can be just as sought out as a haunting ghost, rampaging werewolf, or probing alien being. These games are typically episodic in nature (think early X-Files or early Fringe or just about any Scooby Doo) in which what happened last week has no bearing on what is going on this week. It’s just a recurring cast of characters (the PCs) searching out and taking care of something strange (usually through violence, but not always.)
Save the City/Nation/World
For longer-term campaign arcs, saving the locality of the PCs from some overreaching threat is a great idea. The threat doesn’t have to be on a grand scale (save the world), but it does have to be a threat against something the PCs hold dear. Otherwise, their only motivation for getting involved might simply be to collect a paycheck. While this is a fine motivation, games tend to be better when there is a personal stake involved. Most of the time, a high price for the characters when they lose equates to more fun for the players.
Search and Destroy
This style of story works well for mercenary type groups, but it can also be rolled into the society/culture of the characters. In the Forgotten Realms kingdom of Cormyr, goblins have no rights. I don’t recall if this is canon or my creation, but there was a bounty on goblin ears in that nation. I had a group discover they could make a decent living for the 5 gold piece bounty until they found out they wanted to buy some magical spells and potions. At this point, the campaign turned into something greater. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of PCs raise to sixth level just from goblins before or since…. The thing to be destroyed can easily work into the mystery or “Save the X” story type.
Search and Rescue
In this case, the PCs are tasked (self-tasked, ordered or hired) with the mission of executing a rescue mission. The thing to be rescued could be a person, object or piece of knowledge. I start a great deal of campaigns this way because it’s straightforward and easy. I try my best to wrangle in something from a PC’s backstory into the thing to be rescued, which makes the mission personal. A great twist is to make the thing in “need” of rescuing, not want to be rescued from his/her/its current controller. That’s good fun.
The final story type I want to touch upon is the “delivery” story type. I actually have another name for it, but I don’t want to get sued by the folks with the airport delivery hub in Memphis, TN. The arc of this story is pretty self-apparent. The PCs have (for whatever reason) something to get from Point A to Point B. Of course, it’s never easy to get the thing (again, it could be a person or object), to the destination. The parcel could be reluctant to arrive, or there are folks with a strong motivation to keep the delivery from happening, or there could just be some “random” mishaps along the way to keep the PCs from easily accomplishing their goal.
Mix ‘n’ Match
Lastly, I want to encourage GMs out there to pick over these ideas (and others you find online) and mix them together in manners that make an interesting story to you and your players. It’s usually not enough to go with one story type and stick with it. Everyone needs a little variety in their lives.
J.T. Evans morphed into an avid role player at the tender age of ten with the release of the Dungeons & Dragons red box set. The vision of a warrior fighting a dragon on the cover of the box caused a new passion to leap upon J.T.. He's explored more worlds, planes, star systems, and settings than he can remember. When J.T's not tossing dice around the table with his friends, he works on his fantasy novels at his home outside Monument, CO.